Reading Tehran

This CSM piece gives an excellent background on the British-Iranian conflict that lead to the capture of British soldiers last week. The big mystery is why Iran would give the UK/US a clear casus belli like this, when we’re so clearly itching for a fight. It’s not like they couldn’t guess what sort of reaction there’d be to another “Iranian hostage crisis.” CSM suggests three possible motivations for the Iranians to provoke the British:

  1. It could be about nukes: “An attempt to rebuke Great Britain for its role in supporting a new United Nations Security Council resolution imposing fresh sanctions over Iran’s refusal to suspend its uranium enrichment program.”
  2. Or maybe they’re looking to trade for some Iranian hostages that nobody bothered to comment on: “Richard Beeston, the diplomatic editor of The Times of London, writes in an analysis that ‘privately there is acknowledgement that [the British sailors’] fate is bound closely to that of the Iranian captives‘ seized by the US” in January.
  3. Of course, it could also be due to ancient ethnic hatreds cartographic disputes (!?): “The main cause of the showdown could be a centuries-old dispute over the water border between Iran and Iraq. It began with the 1639 Treaty of Zuhab between the Persian and Ottoman empires, which divided the land without a careful survey. Disagreements through the 1980s, and some of the fiercest fighting in the eight-year war between the two nations occurred along this border. The Associated Press quotes Lawrence G. Potter, an associate professor of international affairs at Columbia University, who says that even to this day the exact demarcation has not been established. ‘The problem is that nobody knows where the border is,’ Potter said. ‘The British might have thought they were on their side, the Iranians might have thought they were on their side.’”

These are all fascinating theories, especially the last little dig at Iran’s geographic fundamentalism. But why does no one credit the Iranian claim that the British soldiers were in fact trespassing? It’s water. Boats float on top of it with a remarkable lack of precision. There’s been a flurry of GPS coordinates supposedly proving, or disproving, the location, but all I’ve seen are numbers on the page… nothing approaching real proof.

More to the point, I can easily credit the Iranian claim that these militaries might be engaged in all sorts of special forces or espionage work in or near their territory. We haven’t exactly shown a great deal of respect for national borders and sovereignty, lately, and if we were planning to invade, there’d be a flurry of this sort of minor infringement to put Tehran on edge and slow their reactions to future transgressions.

Of course, I’m probably overreacting… it turns out this has all happened before! CSM draws an apparently obvious parallel with a “2004 incident in which Iranians arrested eight British servicemen on patrol in disputed waters between Iran and Iraq. Those servicemen were released three days later, after making a televised apology for straying into Iran.” Could it all be as simple as that? Iranian hostage crisis: business as usual. Yawn.





One response to “Reading Tehran”

  1. Don Deeley Avatar

    The border dispute gets stranger than that. CASMII and <a> have pieces up saying that if you print out a map of the disputed area and use the GPS coordinates given by the British, they're clearly closer to Iran than Iraq. There's also another piece saying the British didn't have the right to be boarding ships anyway. None of it answers the question of why British forcers were boarding the ship to investigate cars though. It's a very strange situation.
    But I think Iran's being cagier than they're being given credit for. Blair can't get a war with Iran. He's a lame duck and the British people won't stand for it. But, as Iraq proved, who cares what the people think, it's the military that goes to war. Only the military isn't up for playing with the US anymore either. They just finished an inquiry into a US-on-Brit friendly fire death where they ruled the US's obstruction and destruction of evidence was "criminal." A "Gulf of Tonkin"-style event only works when the people in charge are willing to follow up on it.
    Speaking of "Gulf of Tonkin" events, when the US was doing their massive military manoeuvers just off the coast of Iran this weekend, there was a rumor that the Iranians fired a missile. And that story came out because the military initially and immediately reported it as "a rumor and only a rumor." The purpose of having all the forces stationed in the Gulf is to try to incite an attack so there's then justification for a full military response. But the missile rumor makes it look like the military itself is trying to make the war effort as difficult on Bush et al. as possible.
    Still, we should be emailing our Congresspeople every day to tell them no war in Iran. Bush wants this.

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